In some places, the Danube River can almost be crossed on foot.
The same applies to other European rivers such as the Loire, the Rhine, the Garda and the Po. Until recently full of water and teeming with life, now all these rivers are horribly dried up and appear to be suffering one of the worst droughts in European history. On the Rhine River, water traffic is currently suspended, and the level of the Po is two meters lower than the average for the summer season.
This threatens one of the most profitable sectors in European tourism – river cruises.
What is happening is not a huge surprise given the dry winter and the relatively dry spring that followed. However, experts warn that this could be the most serious drought on the Old Continent in 500 years.
The disaster comes amid the growing popularity of river cruise tourism, which has boomed in recent years. The tour along the great European rivers has its own charm and is especially preferred by active people who like to explore in detail the cities they visit.
Danube River near Novi Sad
“Usually the ship drops anchor very early in the morning, you have the whole day to explore and you come back on board late at night to rest,” Claire Weeden, senior lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton.
River ships are smaller and hold a smaller number of travelers, which makes river cruises far more relaxed and quiet, Weeden explains. After all, tourists return more rested than on sea cruises.
That’s why some tour operators call river cruises “the coolest thing we’ve ever sold,” or at least until the landfall.
Weeden told CNN that there are already canceled cruises, as well as rerouted cruises.
Other companies are not yet affected because river ships are deliberately built with a flatter bottom as they are meant to pass through shallower waters. However, this is not a solution in extreme drought.
River cruise ships off Budapest
Helen Porcillo, a tour operator for a major river cruise company in Europe, experienced the anxiety of sailing in a low-lying river in 2017. She says the ship’s pool had to be emptied to reduce its weight, and no one didn’t see the captain after the first night of welcome because he was too busy making sure the sailing was going smoothly.
During the same trip, Porcillo saw another cruise ship that had to disembark its passengers prematurely for their safety. With the current drought, she thinks anyone wanting a river cruise would be best off waiting until next year.
The increasingly warm summers are beginning to impose a certain seasonality in river travel, and early spring and late autumn appear to be the most favorable.
Those who have already reserved and pre-paid their trip, Porcillo advises to stay in touch with tour operators to make sure the cruise will go ahead. Currently, there is no river unaffected by the drought and the situation is very dynamic, she is convinced.
And the drought is already taking a heavy toll on trade as well, because while the tourist boat situation is still relatively stable, ships with the largest cargo capacity are already barred from passage in many places. An example of this is Hungary, where the heaviest ships allowed to pass are 1,600 tons each.
The port after Visegrad is completely closed for the moment, because it is impossible for ships to maneuver in such shallow water.
According to Bloomberg’s calculations, the losses from disrupted traffic on the Danube and Rhine alone are estimated at 80 billion dollars. The level of the Po River has fallen so low that it threatens rice plantations and the population of Vongole mussels in the waters.
The Po River at the moment
Let’s not forget that rivers are also home to hundreds of freshwater species that also suffer from drought. Drought is also detrimental to plants.
At the southern end of the Rhine Gorge, where tens of acres of terraced plantings of Riesling grapes stretch, the soil has begun to brown and become unusually friable. Near the famous Lorelai Rocks, a sandbank has formed that has never existed before.
Even seasoned climate and shipping experts are unpleasantly surprised by the drought in Europe right now. Günter Jaegers, CEO of a Rhine shipping company, told Bloomberg that he had never seen a drought like this.
“It’s some climate madness,” Jaegers sums up.